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Countdown to $100,000 Digital Incubator Grant Winner Begins with Semifinalist Announcement


If college students still wrote essays about how they spent their summer vacations, two teams from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University could say that they spent their summer months developing Websites good enough to make them semifinalists for a $100,000 grant from Cisco and mtvU (MTV Networks’ college oriented cable and broadband channel). The grant is the top prize in the Digital Incubator contest, which provides resources for college students pursuing careers in digital media to develop innovative concepts into interactive Websites. Cisco and mtvU will announce the winner on October 29.

The idea for the Digital Incubator contest grew out of Cisco’s desire to fund the next round of innovators in technology, and it made sense to look for those people in top universities across the country. Cisco chose to work with mtvU because of its close association with the college market. mtvU reaches 750 campuses with 7.2 million students across the US. In its first year, the Digital Incubator Website registered more than 2.5 million hits, and over 12,000 people requested more information about applying for the following year.

“There is a transition under way, driven by ubiquitous digital content, broadband, video, and a multiplicity of devices. Consumers are driving innovation, and students are at the forefront of that innovation,” said Dan Scheinman, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Cisco Media Solutions Group (CMSG).

The combination of resources from Cisco and mtvU offers students an unusual opportunity to combine creativity with practicality. “mtvU encourages the students to continue the uninhibited thinking that they are used to in an art school. Cisco has then provided something that was truly lacking, a path for them to understand about transferring that thinking into the real world,” said Dan O’Sullivan, Professor and Section Head for Computational Media, Interactive Media Program (ITP), NYU.

The students’ Digital Incubator adventure began in the spring of 2007 when more than 55 teams from top digital-media programs nationwide submitted applications outlining their ideas. Cisco and mtvU gave five of those teams a $30,000 grant and four months to develop their Websites and create a business plan. Cisco and mtvU felt that the business plans would help keep the teams on track with development timelines and product strategy, as well as provide valuable experience for future projects.

The sites went live September 5, 2007, and the teams submitted follow-up business plans and a video pitch describing why they believed that they should be considered for the final prize of an additional $100,000 grant. An executive panel consisting of Dan Scheinman from Cisco and Mika Salmi, President of Global Digital Media at MTV Networks, used this material to select two semifinalist projects: Selectricity from M.I.T. and RapHappy from NYU.

Selectricity is an online, communal ranking technology that uses preferential decision-making instead of a winner-take-all paradigm to select an option that is most acceptable to a group as a whole. Using a drag-and-drop mechanism, users rank choices in order of preference and the application generates the result. Users can set up a Selectricity question in under 30 seconds and tap their friends to help settle daily dilemmas such as selecting a restaurant.

RapHappy is an online and mobile-phone-based hip-hop community that lets members easily record, collaborate on, search, and listen to freestyle or written raps, without uploading software or files. RapHappy can be used as a self-promotion tool for aspiring musicians, a communication tool for recording private audio messages for friends, or simply as an artistic medium. Members can dynamically collaborate with other artists, rate and comment on submissions, and participate in battles for a chance to collect cash and other prizes.

The contest offered many benefits to the participants that went far beyond normal educational boundaries. For Matthew Fargo, creator of RapHappy and currently a graduate student at NYU in the Interactive Telecommunications Department, the contest helped him coalesce an eclectic set of skills in music and computer science, gain practical business skills, and launch a viable company. “Writing a business plan and developing pitch videos was practical experience in getting a business going and ready to pitch to venture capitalists. That’s the kind of thing you normally wouldn’t do in school,” said Fargo. “This contest has taken me from a student to a businessman in a matter of months.”

Mako Hill, the designer of Selectricity and a recent graduate of the Computing Culture Research Group in the M.I.T. media lab, also gained practical business experience from the contest. “There’s a world of difference between developing a really great research prototype and developing a real product that someone is actually going to use,” said Hill. “We had to put time and effort into scalability. We had to create a test suite so we could integrate new features without breaking things. We hired a designer so the site would look good, because people like to use an attractive interface. None of these things matter in the world of research prototypes.”

Hill developed the idea for Selectricity out of a personal interest in voting and election technology, and a desire to create new and more democratic techniques for decision-making. Hill believes that these techniques have the potential to provide value in many aspects of everyday life as well as in government elections. “I’m interested in helping to create a more democratic form of decision-making, and this is the best way for me to do it right now,” said Hill.

Hill and students like him confirm Cisco’s belief that there are a lot of young innovators, especially in the university programs, that can make significant contributions to society when given sufficient resources. Ross Martin, Senior Vice President and Head of Programming for mtvU, agrees. “The Digital Incubator is one of those programs that empowers some of the most talented college students in America to pioneer our digital future,” said Martin.

Martin also believes that student-generated technology can provide an engine for social change that will ultimately improve the quality of our lives. “When you look at projects like Selectricity, which reinvents the notion of picking a winner or determining a favorite, you can start to see the subtle genious that is simmering on college campuses across the country,” explained Martin. “And when you see what these students are capable of doing-and the Digital Incubator projects are great examples of that-it renews our faith that we’re going to be in good hands when they graduate.”


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